Rishi Sunak and the conservative dilemma

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In 2006, for obscure reasons, I had a brief, private conversation with Margaret Thatcher. Informed in advance that she was not at the top of her powers, I thought better of asking the question that still intrigues me now. What did she do with the nation she had shaped? On the one hand, he was an economic success: rich, creative, no longer Europe’s floundering neighbor. On the other hand, once stable communities had changed. National assets were under foreign ownership. The capital belonged more to the world than to Great Britain. It turned out that the markets were not conservative.

Look at your work, ma’am. It was worth it? I think it was, but I’m a liberal. The question belongs more to the conservatives.

Rishi Sunak, who does not have the excuse of old age, appears to have never done this. He is the most conscientious capitalist ever to serve as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. At the same time, he is stickler enough for tradition and nationality to have supported Brexit before Boris Johnson. That the first belief conflicts with the second, that markets disrupt established patterns of life, does not seem to concern his high-level mind. But this is the eternal conservative dilemma. In the end, he has been gored and impaled on the horns. I wouldn’t care so much if the nation wasn’t bleeding with him.

A conservative believes in home ownership, but not in building houses on greenfield land; in trade, but not in the supranational regulations that soften it. In each of these intellectual conflicts, this government has tended to prioritize tradition: the field over the home, legal sovereignty over exports. It is a legitimate choice. But it was done without being aware of the cost to growth. If Thatcher never anticipated the cultural upheaval that her economic reforms would provoke, her heirs could not see the economic lethargy that her cultural caution would provoke. Distrusting abstract thinking, conservatives fail to detect the tension at the center of their worldview.

This tension applies to right-wingers everywhere, more or less. If William Buckley was serious about his definition of a conservative (“someone who opposes history, shouting ‘enough’”), he should have supported more restrictions on American businesses, which were an agent of social change even before introduced smartphones. in the hand of every teenager. The current extreme right, with its critical vision of capitalism, sees this clearly. Still, the dilemma is much more serious in the United Kingdom than in the United States. The domestic market is smaller, resources are less abundant, and trade represents a colossal part of national production. We are an open or poor nation. We are porous or poor. Traditionalism is not affordable.

This, in the end, is the case of the political center. Britain needs the right’s enthusiasm for the market, but the left’s openness to immigration, housebuilding and other fruits of The market. This centrism does not split the difference on each issue. He emphatically takes one side or the other, according to the topic. It would be better to call it “double extremism.”

One story from this outgoing government will stay with me. An Abu Dhabi-backed consortium has launched a bid for some conservative newspaper titles in the UK. He gave up last month. What happened? Tenacious resistance from scandalized right-wingers, who cited the sanctity of national institutions in a world of lax and ethics-free capital. Some of these Tories had once told me that Brexit buccaneer Britain was going to embrace the outside world in a way that squeamish continentals never could. They say if you live long enough, you can see everything. Is not true. You just need to live to be 42.

Sunak can afford to live anywhere in London and chooses Kensington. It is difficult to present him as an interesting man, much less a tragic historical figure. But I think that, unlike one or two of his predecessors and hordes of his flippant colleagues, he got into politics to improve Britain’s situation. He just never resolved, or even acknowledged, the fact that half of his worldview would always get in the way of his. He should have given more rein to the other half, the inner liberal of him. What a disappointment it has been for those of us who run alongside history shouting “speed up.”

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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